I was once offered a job on an airplane, salary offers scribbled on the backs of airline napkins and everything.
I also once held airline sickness bags to the mouth of a college student who had the misfortune of getting his wisdom teeth removed the day before flying back to school on the East Coast.
When I began my flight from Sacramento to Washington, DC, en route to Uganda, I wondered where Scott, the feed farmer, would fall on my best to worst plane companions scale.
Scott was on his way to a church leadership conference in Canada and had a stack of paperwork at least 4 inches thick that he was to read over before the conference. Poor guy.
We began chatting across the mercifully vacant seat between us and Scott regaled me with tales a unique employee named Rambo. However he solidified his spot in the number 2 ranking of favorite plane companions when he told me a tale of the last church leadership conference that ended with one of his conference colleagues riding in an open trunk, blowing cigar smoke at the cars behind them. Good stuff, but alas Scott had his silver medal ranking taken away by a force of nature so magical that it can only be explained in two words:
I swore Santa Claus had just walked past me and into the lavatory. He wore a red shirt, a snowy white beard, and glasses perched on his nose revealing his twinkling blue eyes. The only things missing were his sack of toys and a reindeer or two.
I stopped him on his way back to his seat and asked if I could take his picture. He smiled and obliged, almost giving a ‘Ho Ho Ho’ kind of chuckle.
“My littlest nephews are not going to believe that I was on a plane with Santa! One of them was just wondering last Christmas where Santa goes on vacation.” I could barely contain my glee as I snapped his photo. And then Santa did a very cool thing. He gave me his business card with his secret identity so I could show it to my nephews. As it turns out, in his off-season, Santa is known as Marty the missionary and he was headed to Africa that day.
Marty, er, Santa, boys and girls, I mean Santa, entertained Scott and I with tales of Santahood including the gut wrenching story of a little boy who climbed atop his lap and asked for his mother’s cancer to be taken away. Santa also told us a hilarious story about another boy who was being a holy terror in the seat of his haggard mother’s shopping cart. Santa leaned down into this boy’s face, squared him with a serious look over the rims of his glasses and said, “You know who I am, right?” The little boy nodded, mouth agape. “Then you be good to your mother and listen to her.” The boy nodded again and sat quietly in the cart. The mother sighed with relief and on a subsequent aisle asked Mrs. Claus to thank Mr. Claus for his help.
Santa gave me a gift on that flight to DC. You heard me right, I got a gift from Santa and it wasn’t even close to Christmas. I know, I know, try to contain your jealousy. After all, you don’t want to be on the naughty list.
The gift Santa gave me was a Rubik’s cube sort of toy that unfolds and refolds to tell the story of the life of Christ. Now this cube isn’t really my style for sharing my faith, but it was a sweet act of kindness on Santa’s part.
When the flight landed, Scott and I parted ways. I wished him a fun-filled conference and, fingers crossed, a story or two that might land him in the trunk. He wished me the best on my work with the students in Uganda. Then came time to bid Santa ado. We said our goodbyes and Santa in all earnesty, with his mouth drawn up like a bow, told us he loved us. I smiled because his authentic love for people couldn’t have been more evident.
You can imagine my delight when I discovered that Santa was on my flight from DC to Brussels and then seated right behind me on my flight from Brussels into Africa. All day long Santa told me tales of the lovely Mrs. Claus including how much he’d missed her these last two years since her passing. I saw photos of Santa’s seven children and his grandchildren. Santa even confessed to wearing only red shirts.
As I said, the Jesus Rubik’s cube isn’t my style of sharing my faith. Surely, I’d miss a fold or a turn and leave poor Jesus stranded in the tomb or something. But I’m keeping the cube as a memento because each time during my trip when a pang of homesickness would seize my stomach or a shadow of doubt about this harebrained idea to write alongside kids in Africa would sweep across my mind, Santa was there with a word of encouragement or a kind gesture.
I know people who travel with images of saints to watch over them. I don’t believe in the deity of saints, but I can’t help but laugh at God’s sense of humor for sending Saint Nicholas to watch over me as I traveled across the world, alone but never lonely.
Needless to say, Santa parked his sleigh firmly in the number 1 spot on my list of all time favorite plane companions. Marty Santa spends his days comforting children in need, redirecting them when the opportunity allows and even reassuring big kids like me that God shows up in magical ways even when the calendar doesn’t read December 25th.